The greased piglet will soon be sausages. That, at least, seems the obvious outcome of this week’s Tory party confidence vote. With over 40 per cent of his MPs in open revolt against him, even Boris Johnson, the great political escapologist, is running out of road. He may have survived now. But with two by-election losses looming in the Red and Blue Walls, a cost-of-living crisis spiralling out of control, and MPs manoeuvring against him, this reprieve looks temporary.
The Conservative party has still not entirely recovered from Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration 30-odd years ago, and nobody would want to repeat the six months of agony and the electoral shellacking that it finally took for Theresa May to go. Least of all, surely, Johnson himself. The author of The Churchill Factor should know that staggering on with a party and country against him will hardly make for the best material for future historians.
But Johnson has another option: to resign. He may wish to fight on, but he shall be doing so on the stickiest wicket. By contrast, resigning would allow him to be the master of his own destiny. He would give himself the greatest chance of both ensuring his premiership gets the best reputation possible, and of building up support for a return to the top. After all, it was Churchill who said that history would be kind to him, for he intended to write it – and even Johnson can’t write and govern.
Imagine what Johnson would do if he resigned. He could finally finish his long-promised Shakespeare book, plugging a hole in his finances while reminding the public he wasn’t always just a politician. He can ditch his relatively small prime ministerial salary and resume his column at the Daily Telegraph. He can churn out a bestselling memoir or two, giving his take on the last few years. And he can lead the attack on his successor, who will face a particularly different political period.
By the next election, the Conservatives will have been in power for 14 years. No party in modern British history has succeeded in even being the largest at five successive elections, let alone winning a majority. What’s more, all the economic signals are bad: inflation is spiralling, interest rates are going up, and a passion for fiscal incontinence has ensured taxes have reached their highest level in 70-odd years. Few would bet on the Tories being in power come 2025.
Leaving Downing Street now would enable Johnson to position himself as the Government’s critic-in-chief – and the prince across the water. Without the responsibility of running the country weighing him down, he could pin the blame for high taxes and low growth on his reticent colleagues or global conditions. He could have the heads of his readers everywhere nodding vigorously, rather than butting his own against the limited imaginations of Whitehall and the Treasury.
In doing so, Johnson would again be imitating Churchill. Blenheim’s favourite son resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in 1931 over Dominion status for India. He established himself as Baldwin and Chamberlain’s leading opponent over everything from Wallis Simpson to appeasement – as well as writing his lucrative history of Marlborough. When war broke out, he was vindicated and back in government. Within a year, he was prime minister. Cometh the hour, cometh the amateur historian.
Returning to the backbenches will allow Johnson to mirror Margaret Thatcher in crafting a narrative of having been forced out by his own ungrateful MPs. Snap surveys by YouGov and ConservativeHome yesterday suggested around half of Conservative members want him gone. But the #BackBoris crowd remains strong, and will happily accept, as Johnson’s successors get in increasing difficulty, that the original sin was his removal. Partygate will fade in the public imagination.
Johnson has done it before. His resignation from the Cabinet over the Chequers Deal in 2018 had plenty permanently writing off his chances of reaching the premiership. Yet a year or so spent writing his column and getting flack over burkas and letterboxes didn’t stop him from being the obvious candidate when May humiliated her party at the European elections. If the next leader faces a similar rout at the next general election, Johnson could be the clear alternative again.
So resigning now would not have to mean Johnson forever departing into political oblivion. A few years on the backbenches where he could recover his voice would do him – and his finances – no world of good. Paradoxically, if you want Boris Johnson to remain a leading force in the Conservative party for many years to come, you should back his resignation now. Better that than he is forced out after a few more months of cost-of-living crises, Partygate woes, and Tory infighting.
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